It’s June 6th 2017 at 6:45am, and I’m waiting at the Gombak LRT.
I consider my photojournalism project as I wait for videographer and documentary filmmaker, Jules Rahman-Ong to pull up.
Initially, huge aesthetic inspiration came from Stephen Dupont’s Raskols. He is one of my favourite photographers. Although his project was perhaps a strange precedent for my own, the impactful delivery and the in-your-face integrity of it all was something I found admirable. My plan was to take portrait photographs of the most instrumental members in the Temiar resistance against the backdrop of their homelands. I wanted them to have free reign to their own presentation with the intention that their own intimate tales be shared.
It took about 4 hours or so before reaching Gua Musang. And then another few hours deeper into the jungle. The heat and the sway of the car ride lulled me into slumber and made the day short for me. I would sporadically wake to the odd logging truck carrying huge pieces of timber out of the forest. Since the blockades have been paused, logging has continued in full force.
We arrived at a church hall where many of the Indigenous practice Christianity alongside their traditional beliefs. The place is called Kampung Parik. Many community organisations are held here, and today was no exception. Various Temiar from all over the peninsular began to arrive in dribs and drabs.
There soon ensued a workshop led by Tijah Han Yok Chopil and her husband, Dollah, founders of POASM, an organisation that was also largely formed by Orang Asli, to help protect their identity, heritage and future. Pak Dollah and Tijah are key activists in the movement.
The exercises were team building and, like the peaceful and jovial peoples they are, there was much laughter throughout. Temiar of all ages participated, showing the strength and solidarity of the cause. The fight has now become necessary in the changing face of Malaysia’s landscape. They are the guardians of the jungle.
I snapped photos non-stop. This is where I realised that perhaps the Raskol slant was not going to cut it. And really, what I wanted most was to let the Temiar culture, their values and their courage breathe in the photographs. Through the various events I was to witness and the world they were about to show me, the truth would hopefully bleed out into an inky image.
After the workshop came to a close, we ate a delicious lunch of rice, steamed green vegetables and fried fish. More or less, their staple diet today. Traditionally, they are hunter gatherers with a slash-and-burn culture. Blowguns using poison darts were typically used in hunting, with snares and traps being utilized to capture smaller animals for dinner.
Traditional technologies include weaving, where the Temiar construct beautiful mats, baskets and other products from bamboo, pandanus and rattan which they trade. Metal tools such as knives and luxuries like tobacco, flour and cloth are obtained through such trade with the Chinese and Malay. With government influence they are sometimes bought off, selling rubber and working on plantations.
The largest threat to their homelands is the palm oil industry. This is the reason they are congregated at Kampung Parik. As loggers begin to encroach on the forest, forcing the Temiar out and into the city outskirts where they are subjected to poverty and harsh ways of life.
This was the second time I met Mustafa and he seemed to recall my interest in their case from the panel earlier in the year.
I think it was taking a while for many of them to get used to me with my bright red hair. None of them really spoke English. They speak Temiar and most are fluent in Bahasa Melayu. And my Malay is seriously lacking. So, I had a lot of fun communicating with emojis on Whatsapp with Mustafa, trying to learn some of their words.
(Elok gah = Hello, how are you
Gah Meij = I’m good)
Mustafa spoke the most English out of the community by a fair amount.
The Temiar abhor violence but also understand the importance of individual autonomy; groups traditionally chose their leaders based on their verbal skills rather than strength, wealth or family background. The Malaysian government has also encouraged them to choose leaders. These select few, like Mustafa, are deemed intermediaries between the Temiar and outsiders, making them respectable figures within the community. Mustafa’s official title is President of the Indigenous Peoples Village Network of the Kelantan region. He also studies law, working with righteous and controversial lawyers like Siti Kasim.
They motosikal everywhere. But Mustafa came with me and Rahman on a drive back to his house. The Temiar traditions see that upon marriage, the husband lives with the wife and her family. Later on in the marriage, this switches up with the wife living with the husband’s group. Mustafa’s father in law was waiting at a very typical Malay kampung house.
After this micro-tour, we drove back to the sacred house known as the Rumah Adat where we would be staying for the next few days. This is a truly magnificent structure of great craftsmanship, and it was an honour to be able to experience this. The main body of the house is made from wood, split bamboo and bark which has been tightly woven, using corrugated metal and palm fronds as the roof. Spaces such as windows and certain gaps in the flooring allow for the circulation of cooling air. It is incredibly strong yet springy and comfortable to sleep on. The house sits on on stilts about three metres from the ground and the entire structure is held together with tightly knotted rattan strips.
The floor plan consisted of two predominant areas, surrounded by the sleeping quarters. Upon entry, you walk into the central space which is used for meetings and dancing. The second, large space towards the back of the interior is primarily used for cooking and is mainly occupied by the women.
The Rumah Adat is where I met Tok Halak Along Busu, the Village Shaman and Mustafa’s father. He was old and blind with a lot of character etched in his weathered face. Although unable to see, he could roll tightly packed cigarettes with ease. I also met Dendi Johari, the Youth Chief and Shaman Apprentice. Dendi was an intriguing young man, also able to speak a small amount of English.
I gotta learn Malay.
I woke reasonably early and we had a breakfast of bee hoon.
The shower was a bucket of cold water, which was extremely refreshing under the humidity of the canopy.
Dendi was already at Rumah Adat from his nearby village.
Mustafa arrived shortly after, and Rahman and I waited to see who would be attending the trip to the sacred site. Dendi seemed slightly dejected after Mustafa insisted he stay behind at Rumah Adat. But he had another job to do as Shaman in training.
Tok Halak was sat in front of me. He had a candle lit in one hand which he placed to the side. The wax for the candles is a difficult material to attain; taken from honey bee nests that hang like webs from the heights of one of the tallest and proudest trees in the jungle, the Tualang. They tower above the canopy and have smooth trunks with high branches, supported by large buttress roots. They are also a big target for loggers. Anyhow, the candle made from this wax is used to ignite ceremonies and rituals and Tok Halak began to give me his blessings. He called to the good spirits to protect me from those that were dangerous when I would be at the sacred site that day.
The Temiar are typically referred to as animists. The destruction of their homelands also results in the destruction of their culture; the trees have names, and the tombs and graves of their ancestors lay in the deep of the forest which are now being upturned with the logging infringement. The landscape is the shape of their lives and their history is ingrained in the area.
The sacred site we were soon to visit is a large cave, further into the jungle, called Gua Jangutt. The hallowed space is revered, not only by the Temiar but also the Negrito community, another Orang Asli group that live within the area. They speak a separate language known as Mendriq, and there are about 220 of them left, making this a very endangered language. Before heading to the cave, we visited the Mendriq village and we received another blessing from their local elder in order to enter. They too, used a Tualang candle.
The Mendriq we met were living in the concrete blocks of Government housing. Poorly built and in a decrepit state, it is no wonder that many Mendriq have moved back into the jungle from this abysmal resettlement programme.
With permission granted by the spirits, we all proceeded to Gua Jangutt: – the Orang Asli centre of the world.
There are various gateways named here; Pintu Raso, Pintu Sindat, Pintu Haluan, Pintu Kong connecting to the other worlds. It was a quiet and potent sensation simply being in this space. Although I was given permission to take photographs here, it almost felt wrong. Only the Shaman can enter the deepest parts of the cave.
Much like the beliefs of the Temiar, the Mendriq also explained that if the construction of the hydroelectric dam was to continue, flooding over Gua Jangutt, terrible consequences would take place as the balance of nature is disturbed further and the forest spirits are angered.
The earth here is a deep and vibrant red. When it floods, it’s like blood. The Temiar referred to the floods that abolished their housing and brought disaster to the whole of the Kelantan region as the infamous Bah Merah (red floods). As trees are cut, they no longer soak up the rainfall. Silt and other debris is carried downstream by the flow of rainwater into the rivers. Eventually the rivers fill with silt and burst their banks. The ‘killer’ Bah Merah of 2014 rose thirty metres above the level of the river.
We spent some time marveling at Gua Jangutt. It had an enthralling and enduring presence. Rahman captured some excellent footage of Tok Halak and also the Mendriq outside the cave, speaking of its importance. The construction of the hydroelectric dam is now complete and this sacred space is now underwater. We will no doubt see the repercussions in the near future.
After, we pressed on to another sacred rock site that had been obliterated by miners using dynamite. The miners came in search of marble on behalf of a Chinese company. What was once a pristine, white tower of rock is now reduced to rubble. Batu Bang (ironic name, I know) was also a place of great worship, treated with reverence by the Orang Asli in the area. Ceremonies were held at the site and both Temiar and Mendriq prayed here.
True to Orang Asli predictions, egregious events occurred upon its demolition and the owner of the business died within a few weeks. His death left a large quarry around the corner from Batu Bang, filled with massive blocks of abandoned marble. It’s destruction is also another cause of mass flooding.
When we returned to the Rumah Adat, Dendi had prepared the house for a nehpoh (ceremony) or sewang in Malay. This was a ceremony to give thanks, to worship and to ask for help. Aromatic leaves were hung all around the central room and from the centre piece that swayed from the ceiling like a giant mobile in the heat of the late afternoon; all blending me into a dream. The leaves were notably given different names according to their placement. On the outside of the centre piece, they are referred to as bug cal’lon and the leaves hanging from the inner circles are called tamuk nehpoh. I was unable to find out what this meant but they may serve a different purpose.
It turns out the ceremony was also in honour of Rahman and I. We were given headpieces known as tem’pok kuw’war. It was insanely humbling and I was extremely grateful to be there to experience the nehpoh. As the nehpoh began, the lights were turned off. A fire glowed towards the back in the kitchen area. The women lined up, holding two bamboo poles each, keeping time and rhythm as the Shaman chanted, to which they returned his call. The ceremony went on for about an hour, give or take. Some are said to last for 6 hours plus.
After settling down, we arranged a screen and a projector together. We all gathered around and watched Rahman’s Temiar documentary, Fighting For My Home, that he had recently finished and publicised on informative ASEAN platforms like Get Real, Channel News Asia.
I fell asleep quite promptly, in wonder and disbelief at my incredible day.
A breakfast of fish, rice and vegetables again, all delicious and fresh. Slurping on my teh-o ais, I listened to the Temiar talking amongst themselves. There is something about their vibe that fills you with quiet joy and contentment. Although these people are severely mistreated and are facing authorities with the spirit of warriors, they retain an air of absolute unwavering faith, hope and love which is truly quite magical and infectious.
Dendi was dressed up nicely in a black shirt and smart pants. He had a meeting at the British Embassy regarding funds and Rahman offered him a lift into Kuala Lumpur.
Our last day in the rainforest was spent back at Kampung Parik, at the community church hall. I took some last snapshots here to round the trip off and enjoyed a final meal amongst the Temiar. We shared phone numbers and more emoji speak. My personal favourite word I have learnt so far is Mahd’is, meaning sun. Mahd literally translates as eye while is means day. It is a similar concept to Matahari, where the sun is referred to as the eye of the day. I am excited to continue learning about their culture. They are patient, calm and relaxed people to live alongside.
Another showing of Rahman’s documentary, for the other Temiar that did not catch the film at the Rumah Adat. Shortly after, Rahman, Dendi and I left for KL and again, I slept for most of the journey.
As we arrived at Publika to grab some food, Dendi pointed at the mural along it’s walls bearing images of tapir.
“Pahn.” he says, meaning bluff or fake.
Malaysia has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. These are valuable ecosystems and are the most ancient and beautiful, tropical forests I’ve ever seen. We must fight this before it is too late. As Orang Asli are displaced from their land because of logging, they are abject to poverty. The once clear river water is now polluted and floods will only worsen. We must learn from the native people and also become guardians of the forest and it’s creatures. Soon, all we will have are these fake paintings, towering over like imprints of a forgotten past.
As the forest dies, so do these cultures.